|Criminals and Jesus on the cross. Image c/o Nations4Jesus|
To rebel, there must be something to rebel against, boundaries to cross, and so there must first be a sense of what is the good thing and what is the bad thing; the good path and the crooked path; the superior and the inferior option. Oftentimes the line between them is fuzzy, blurred, whether owing to our observations of others or the cultural status quo.
As I learnt over lunch with friends recently, one person's Wagyu beef sandwich is another person's vegetarian sin. But we shouldn't get hung up on what's permissible for others in contrast to ourselves: each one of us is accountable first and foremost to God and must wrestle with the self without growing weary by focusing not on the self but the ultimate victor of the faith: Jesus.
We are told "not [to] grow weary while doing good", and yet, that's very very hard if you feel very very bad about the person you are, or have the occasion to give into temptation when it rears its ugly head, filling your whole self with dread and remorse and guilt; the stupor of sin. Essentially, we need to be equipped for staying on course, and know how to get back into alignment should we drift (and drift we may, though hopefully not too far away).
The wonderful thing about maturing in the faith is the ability to not take others' offenses against you personally; though they may hurt for a time, in the context of Jesus' suffering on the cross, most things pale into insignificance (does it really matter?). But, what's more, when you can identify the roots and causes of your own weaknesses, you can look at others as whole people, with personal histories that are complex, and not simply their words and deeds.
There is cause and effect. The Bible itself is testimony to that.
Abandonment and rejection have played their part in my life and I can see how the fear of both of these things have formerly determined my outlook and decisions, particularly when it comes to women (there are other issues around men, mostly respect) and my body. They have even played a part in my work: why this necessity to do work to gain acceptance, or popularity, or – worse – point to others' faults, rather than to please God?
Just like the spin of self-help can lead us down a path of over self-examination and frustration, when what is simply needed is the recognition that all of humanity suffers for a reason, oftentimes what is lost in the striving to abide in Biblical doctrine is the recognition of one's sheer, vulnerable human status and the desperate need for some greater force to supersede it.
"The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants...These two forces are constantly fighting each other," wrote Paul to the Galatians (5:17). But, first and foremost, in order to do battles with one's sinful, rebellious nature, a true change of heart is needed, preceded by the deep, impenetrable belief that you are incapable of saving yourself and need Christ who gives life.
An acceptance of your fallibility is no easy feat: there is your pride, the defense of "everyone else was/is doing it" and also your own rationalisation for weakness and sin, which can work you into a right tizz of toxic thinking. But if everything seems to be going wrong, if you cannot find peace and contentment nor strength to go on, chances are you're taking the wrong approach.
You are looking too much at yourself, and not enough at the cross.
To pinpoint the place at which things came apart – the decline of a sure sense of self, in relation to others (namely the family unit) – is helpful but not a place to stay, lest you turn into Miss Havisham, her house all covered in cobwebs and dust. It is enough to say, "Things were not perfect, I suffered, I was sad, and you hurt me", but not to let it rule your life and steal your joy, because Jesus overcame everything in the world – and experienced all the same emotions (rejection, fear, loneliness, isolation, devastation) – so that you might be restored to fullness in body, mind and soul.
He creates an even playing field, even while life seems terribly unfair, because life here is not the main aim but the one in heaven.
In the process of a parental divorce, disunity is caused, which gives rise to feelings of uncertainty about being in the world. In turn, when there is no singular "home", nor sense of "we are a family" and "we live in this place", then a young person may start to look for identification, unification and stability elsewhere (like other people's homes, clubs or sports), which ostensibly provide them but perhaps only in a superficial sense... because what we really crave is the attention and affection of our own flesh and blood, whether through one or two parents though preferably both.
There is a contrast, in this sense, elucidated by the preacher and theologian John Piper, between William Cowper and John Newton. Cowper, a poet and, ironically author of many impressive and hopeful Christian hymns, had a very bleak childhood and life.
At age 11, his father gave him a tract on self-murder to read during the holidays in order to elicit his opinion. He was bullied at school in a very damaging way, though we do not know the details. He was denied marriage to the love of his life (his cousin, Theodora). At age 28, he was appointed Commissioner of Bankrupts in London, at the request of his father, a public position he did not want, which led to a mental breakdown.
His afflictions were many, his self-condemnation derived from his sense of the wrath of God for his many moral crimes. He never, ever deemed himself worthy of Christ's redeeming love, except for one occasion, when after reading Romans 3:25, he felt "the sun of Righteousness shone upon me". It was whimsy and friendship that saved him up until a point, but it is doubtful he ever felt peace in his soul nor true joy.
He struggled with serious bouts of depression and sought to end his life on a few occasions, but owed a debt of gratitude to Dr Nathaniel Cotton, a fellow poet and believer, and his faithful friend John Newton (who wrote "Amazing Grace"). He also sought solace in his words of poetry: "And, while that face renews my filial grief, Fancy shall weave a charm for my relief."
He was able to, on one level, accept the teachings of the Gospel, but not able to validate his existence in light of Christ. His story is terribly sad. In his exploration of Cowper's life, Piper notes, "for those of us who are older we have come to see that the events of the soul are probably the most important events in life. And the battles in this man's soul were of epic proportions."
Both Newton and Cowper lost their mothers at age six, but one accompanied his father on the open seas, while the other was whisked away to boarding school and essentially rejected by his father. "In spite of all the sin and misery of those early years of Newton's life, there was a father, and who can say what deep roots of later health were preserved because of that," says Piper.
But, crucially, beyond the childhood years – so often fraught with hurt – and after their conversion, Newton also had an overarching sense of God's grace and his own salvation. Cowper did not.
Still, his life was not lived in vain, as it elucidates for us two things: childhood's impact on the development of one's character, and also the deep and penetrating effect of Christ if one is able to give himself permission to let Him atone for his sins, and, in contrast, the devastation that can occur if one does not.
To deny ill feelings, to pretend that life is but a dream and poses no challenges, would be a denial of our humanity. We will experience sadness and sorrow and restlessness on occasion, and even vast and peculiar separation from God. The Bible is testimony to this: just think of the travails of Job, whose mates were quick to point out his flawed arguments as he battled all the challenges dealt by God, and to David and Daniel and other heroes of the faith.
If there is a rage within, it simply must come out, either in harmful or helpful ways, or else be superseded by something stronger, like love. That might seem a trivial notion, but to sink so deep and low – as I have had occasion to experience – or to revile yourself so much that you believe yourself unworthy of love, as Cowper did, is dangerous to yourself and to others.
How many times have we seen bitterness, hatred, contempt work itself out in acts of depravity, of murder, of hostility?
We grieve the Spirit and the soul when we sin, so it would be wise to set the boundaries early on and arm yourself with the knowledge of what will bear benefit to your life (good and right living) and what will not (falling for lies). But we are not perfect; if we are Christians, we are "being perfected" by Christ. So we need a ready resolution when things from the past, current circumstances, habits or quirks of personality threaten to take the place of simple, humble service to Jesus Christ.
If there is not a single hope of salvation and redemption left to usher us forth on the road, then we are but a lost cause. And this is how Cowper felt. The trick, I think, is to outsmart sin as it is experienced on every level: the sin in the world, which causes tremendous hurt and pain; sin against others, which causes disunity and hostility; and the sin against the Spirit within yourself, which causes self-loathing, guilt and shame.
Then there is the issue of, "How much of myself is shaped by the culture?", and what of the influence of Satan? In conversation with friends over wine and food recently, we discussed just this: how much of our wrong-thinking do we attribute to the presence of demonic (and moronic) ideas that have entered into our heads and from where to they come: the world or Satan himself?
In my experience, Satan loves nothing better than the whiff of someone who is trying to overcome themselves, so we'd be wise to keep him in mind as we go about trying to please the Lord, all the while wondering why everything is going wrong, and why we can't seem to garner enough self-control to just get with the program. For more on this, see C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters.
The answer, I think, is that it's wise to know yourself in two parts: that part of you that is inherently wretched because man has loved his/her own ways and words and ideas rather than God's, and the other part of you that wills itself to do good and be good because it pleases God (even if you don't know Him, it pleases your conscience to do so).
The Christian walk is all about taking on more of Jesus Christ – by determined acceptance of His saving grace, study of his actions, deeds and words, and reliance on His Spirit to direct your days. But it is also resolving not to be defeated by your faulty humanity by letting sin creep in: to expect suffering and hardship, as Christ did, but to be clear minded and pray about all things, as Peter recommended.
The easiest way to open a door to sin is to give into temptation – to gossip, to slander, to be greedy, to be selfish, to seek revenge, to nitpick at others, to say the clever thing instead of the lovely – but it can quickly be closed when we recognise our fault or wrong-doing and seek forgiveness, case closed. John Newton knew of God's amazing grace, Cowper did not.
Reminders of the past, as well as new challenges, situations and people, will crop up, which cause those areas you believe to have addressed – like rejection – to again rear their ugly heads. The very good thing is that you can become good, tactically good, at seeing things for what they are and taking action. We are to be soldiers for the faith, not passive, simply giving in to ill feelings and allowing resentment, hate and self-pity to creep in.
Layers of disappointment and shattered dreams, when not dealt with properly are too often given expression in negative ways. Rejection, separation, loneliness, uncertainty, the feeling of being unlike other little girls with nice little families who don't have to pack up their suitcase fortnightly and shift homes... well, I think that Jesus had the sense that whatever our experience, whatever our hurts and pains, that He, and only He, could attend to them.
Jesus told Peter to forgive seventy times seven... He knew that when we choose not to forgive others, whatever the sin against us, it only causes ourselves hurt, as well as them, because, in His eyes, no person is free of sin (pride, malice, greed, contempt, disrespect, selfishness...). Peter later wrote, "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). Jesus washed his disciples' feet and so too should we each other's.
The helpful thing about Christianity is the overarching narrative that helps to put things into perspective and the soothing, smoothing balm of the Gospel, which conquers all and every obstacle. God's love never gives up, never fails and withstands all things.
If only Cowper knew that as Newton did to the depths of his soul and let it attend to his every burden, misery and frailty, his wretched childhood and terrible memories and the mistakes he made, replacing them one by one with lightness, comfort and hope.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, "Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star, does not change his mind." For the three wise men, and for us, Jesus is that star, the good shepherd who wants us no harm; the cross the greatest symbol of overcoming there ever was.
Girl With a Satchel